The United States is proposing significant increases to its aid packages for Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in the hopes that stabilizing those countries will enhance US efforts to defeat the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. More broadly, however, regional experts say the aid amounts that Washington is extending to the countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia in 2009 are insufficient to secure desired US diplomatic objectives in those regions.
Under the Obama administration's proposed budget for the State Department, economic aid to Kyrgyzstan will increase from $24.4 million this year to $41.5 million in the coming fiscal year, which begins on October 1. Aid to Tajikistan would rise from $25.2 million to $46.5 million.
Military aid to the two countries, while still relatively small, would increase as well under the new budget. Kyrgyzstan would get $2.9 million under the Foreign Military Financing (FMF) program, which allows the recipient countries to pay for weapons and other equipment, compared to $800,000 this year. Tajikistan's FMF package would double - going from $750,000 to $1.5 million.
Central Asia's strategic importance has risen of late amid US efforts to implement a surge in Afghanistan. Over the past year, Washington has assembled a northern supply network involving all five Central Asian states in an effort to speed the flow of material needed by coalition forces to prosecute an offensive against the Islamic militants. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"Central Asia remains alarmingly fragile: a lack of economic opportunity and weak democratic institutions foster conditions where corruption is endemic and Islamic extremism and drug trafficking can thrive. For this region, where good relations play an important role in supporting our military and civilian efforts to stabilize Afghanistan, the [budget] request prioritizes assistance for the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan," according to the budget justification documents that the State Department released on May 7.
Tajikistan, and to a lesser extent Kyrgyzstan, are seen as the weakest links in the supply chain, due mainly to declining economic conditions. The aid increase is designed to help Dushanbe in particular avert a slide into failed state status. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
On Tajikistan, the budget will focus on "chronic winter electricity and food shortages that threaten Tajikistan's stability," the budget documents said. "Funding will help increase the stability of Tajikistan, situated on the frontline of our ongoing military stabilization efforts in Afghanistan. US programs will help strengthen border security and counter-narcotics efforts; promote democratic and economic reform; combat extremism; and improve education."
The increase in aid to Kyrgyzstan will focus on helping the government deal with security, drug trafficking and other transnational threats, as well as aim to stimulate civil society development. "US programs will also focus on areas where progress has stalled, in particular, supporting programs to strengthen democratic institutions and combat corruption," according to the State Department.
The language of the aid request appeared to take a direct shot at Russia, which has offered spirited resistance to the US presence in the Caucasus and Central Asia. "The United States rejects the notion that any country has special privileges or a 'sphere of influence' in this region; instead the United States is open to cooperating with all countries in the region and where appropriate providing assistance that helps develop democratic and market institutions and practices."
Concerning the Caucasus, the budget included $242.5 million for Georgia, as part of the $1 billion in aid that the Bush administration promised last year to help the country rebuild after its war with Russia. The money will "enable Georgia's economic recovery; strengthen the separation of powers; develop a more vibrant civil society and political plurality; bolster independent media and access to information; continue to improve social sector reforms; and increase the country's energy security," according to the budget document.
For the other two countries of the Caucasus, little was changed in the Obama administration's first foreign-aid blueprint. Economic aid to Armenia is set to decrease from $48 million to $30 million, while rising slightly for Azerbaijan, from $18.5 million to $22.1 million. Azerbaijan stands to receive additional funds via the FMF program - a raise from $3 million to $4 million. Georgia's FMF funding rose from $11 million to $16 million.
Armenian-American groups complained that the budget for Armenia represented a broken promise by President Obama, who said during the campaign that he would "maintain" assistance to Armenia. "This budget is fundamentally flawed," said Bryan Ardouny, executive director of the Armenian Assembly of America, in a statement. "It is incomprehensible that a country which already has billions of dollars in oil and gas revenue would receive an increase in US funding while the neighbor it blockades sees its funding decrease," he said, referring to Azerbaijan.
Elsewhere in Central Asia, Turkmenistan's aid rose last year and is set to continue to rise this year, albeit remaining relatively small in scale. Economic aid would increase from $7 million to $13 million, while FMF money would increase tenfold, from $150,000 to $1.5 million.
Experts who deal with the region in Washington suggested the aid package was still too small. Countries like Guyana, Kenya and South Africa receive far more money than Central Asian countries, while not being nearly as strategically significant, said S. Frederick Starr, the head of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Washington, DC. "Even with the increases in aid to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the total aid package to Central Asia remains paltry," he said.
So closely tying aid to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to the mission in Afghanistan also risks making the United States look like a fair-weather friend, said Sean Roberts, a Central Asia expert at George Washington University. He noted that aid to the post-Soviet Central Asian states spiked immediately after the September 11 attacks, when Washington began its military involvement in Afghanistan, but then declined in subsequent years.
"I fear the same may happen this time. If it does, it will only send a message to the Central Asian states that the United States makes these decisions on the basis of short-term policy objectives, such as the surge in Afghanistan, not on the basis of well-thought out ways to help the region develop over the long term," he said.
"If we send that message, we neither help our short-term goals nor the long-term development needs of Central Asia," Roberts added. "If the United States is ready to make such a commitment of annual development assistance to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan for the next ten years, that would be much more productive and send a much more serious message about our interest in the region."
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.